On a U.S. tour, award-winning journalist Robert Fisk spoke about his life work as a veteran journalist reporting about the Middle East.
Fisk is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper, The Independent. For almost 30 years he has been a journalist and with over 28 foreign press awards he is one of the most decorated journalists in the world.
With a sunburned face Fisk has lived in Beirut, Lebanon for 25 years.
“I’m 59, but I feel I’m 29,” he said.
His latest book, The Great War for Civilisation was released this fall. It is an in-depth, lucid analysis of his experiences reporting from the Middle East and war torn regions throughout the world. “I think I wrote it because I wanted people to refuse the narrative given to us by political leaders.”
After Fisk wrote the first, 200 pages (chapter six is about his coverage of the Iran-Iraq War) he had a different view of the book. At first he thought it was a privilege reporting injustice and pain, but the book is about death, torture, dictatorship, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. “My book is a story of that curse,” he said. “It was a deeply, deeply depressing book to write.”
Fisk explained that he writes his reports like he is writing a letter to a friend. He believes journalists should be on the side of the victims because they come first. Since journalists write the first page of history, “why not write it with emotion, compassion and sadness?”
Fisk gave a modest description of himself as “the guy who writes on the spot.” He explained that an osmotic-parasitic relationship exists between journalists and politics because in their minds closeness to power means access. An example of such a relationship is a U.S. White House press conference, where U.S. officials refer to journalists by their first names.
From the podium Fisk opened a U.S. newspaper and demonstrated basic media analysis for the audience. As he reviewed a front-page article about Iraq, Fisk repeated over a dozen references to U.S. officials as the quoted sources of information.
Some audience members laughed.
“This is not a joke, this is very serious,” Fisk said. “If this is the reporting we’re not going to report the truth about the Middle East.”
When asked about alternative, online media coverage Fisk said these publications need to stop calling the mainstream press the mainstream. However he stressed the importance of reporting news on the ground. He said mouse writing can be done behind a computer from any location in the world. If an embedded journalist is writing inside a hotel in Baghdad then he can be writing from New York. “What they don’t tell their readers is that they’re not leaving their rooms.”
The problem with reporting in Iraq is that it is so dangerous journalists cannot move in the streets of Baghdad anymore. Even the current Iraqi Government cannot move outside the Green Line. Are the risks worth the story or is the story worth the risk?
“Iraq is a hell disaster,” he said. “We’ve lost Iraq, we’ve got to leave…we’ll have to go back to obeying international law.”
Several months ago Fisk was talking to an Iraqi family on Highway Eight. Suddenly the ground began to shake. A massive, military convoy containing hundreds of trucks and tens of thousands of troops drove down the highway. It was the largest movement of men and material since World War II. Fisk saw it as the West’s need to demonstrate military power.
Moreover, Fisk has a critical equation about Iraq that is as follows: the Americans must leave Iraq; the Americans will leave Iraq; and the Americans cannot leave Iraq. “The American project (in Iraq) is dead, believe me,” Fisk said and added that some of the Iraqi police have already been infiltrated into the insurgency.
Although many Americans know about the kidnappings in Iraqi they may not have heard that some of the tens of thousands of kidnapped Iraqis are forced into sexual slavery in Yemen. Fisk mentioned a colleague who helped save an Iraqi woman from her brother’s honor killing. The victim found refuge in a safe house.
During research for his book that includes over 328,000 documents Fisk uncovered a “fingerprint perfect parallel” connecting the Anglo occupation of Iraq in 2003-2004 to the Anglo occupation of Mesopotamia in the early 20th century. In the past when the British wanted to secure their oil interests they occupied towns such as Najaf and Fallujah. In 2004, sound familiar? His book contains detailed maps that show how the British and the French carved up the region for their control. Through the generations Iraqis told their tragic experiences to their children who now have a clear memory of what the West calls “liberation.”
Moreover, Fisk talked about The First Holocaust, the Armenia Holocaust of the 20th century. In 1915 1.5 million Armenians were murdered by the Turks. Over the years Fisk interviewed elderly Armenian survivors who shared their experiences with the genocide. Based on interviews, letters and the extensive research of historians and scholars about the First Holocaust, Fisk devotes a chapter in history about the ethnic genocide of a Christian people indigenous to the Middle East.
Fisk gave this moment in history a context within current, political affairs. Thus far, President George W. Bush has referred to the April genocide with words such as tragedy and suffering.
“This is what happens when we allow governments to take precedence over history,” Fisk said.
Although Fisk believes Arabs want democracy, he says they want freedom from us also. History repeated shows that invasions, occupation and colonialism cause pain, suffering and death. Regarding the war in Iraq, Fisk explained: “We think we can close the door on history, we feel we can close the door and start again and we think we can ask the Arabs to do the same.”
When asked about Saddam, Fisk said: “I think Saddam should be put to trial in The Hague. He’s a very cruel, wicked criminal but the U.S. opposed international courts.”
The media has covered the strife between Iraqi Shiite and Sunni Muslims and media coverage describes the possibility of civil war. Fisk said the Iraqis do not want civil war. Since Iraq is a tribal state and not a sectarian state civil war is not something natural to Iraqis. “I don’t believe there will be a civil war,” he said. However he thinks the Anglos are fluttering the concept of civil war above Iraqis’ heads.
When there is violence and war, Fisk prefers talking to the victims. “I think we should be on the side of the victims,” he said. “To report the suffering of innocent people is our job.”
While investigating secret files in a city mortuary Fisk discovered there were 1,100 deaths in Baghdad in July 2005. This means 1100 Iraqi citizens died in one city in one month. Take all of the cities of Iraq and add their deaths in a month for a sum total and times that by twelve…how many is that in one year? Whenever a U.S. soldier dies, the American public knows the names of their widows and their children. Yet, the West hardly focuses on the 100,000 Iraqis dead –” the figure increasing daily.
When he was in the city mortuary that had no electricity, Fisk recalled asking himself: “Who was the woman with the arms behind her back? Who was the baby whose face was blown off?”
Flies on their corpses.
In his concluding remarks Fisk said the words: “blood and sand pits.” Then, he removed his glasses and wiped his eyes.